When North Carolina Symphony General Manager Martin Sher approached New York composer Sarah Kirkland Snider about writing a new piece, a set of images immediately flashed into her mind. She remembered something particular about the light—a memory of lush North Carolina foliage in the summertime, when she would wander aimlessly through it all.
The resulting 27-minute work, Hiraeth, which the North Carolina Symphony will premiere in a series of performances this week, is an attempt to reimagine those snapshots of childhood visits to her grandparents' home in Salisbury. The title comes from an untranslatable Welsh word that evokes homesickness, sadness and nostalgia, often for a place that is lost or never even existed. Despite making her name as one of the leading composers in the current New York scene—she co-directs New Amsterdam Records with Judd Greenstein and William Brittelle—she can trace her lineage through 13 generations of North Carolinians.
This isn't the first time Snider has dealt with memory. Last season, the N.C. Symphony performed three songs from her Unremembered, which transformed the childhood remembrances of poet Nathaniel Bellows into a series of Brothers Grimm-like tales. For Unremembered, she aimed to show empathy with the characters musically.
In Hiraeth, she identifies directly with them. It includes a film by Mark DeChiazza shot in Salisbury and starring her own children, who reenact her memories. The piece also portrays her grief at the death of her father, which occurred just after she started writing. The performance marks the first world premiere in an exciting season for the North Carolina Symphony. Snider spoke about her relationship with the organization and the state that supports it.
INDY: What were you trying to accomplish with Hiraeth?
SARAH KIRKLAND SNIDER: The piece was ostensibly supposed to be about my family history in North Carolina, and it is very much that. It's about the mechanism of memory, based on my experiences on this planet. The emotional content ranges from elegiac reflection and wistful nostalgia to darker modes of reflections. There's more darkness in the piece than there would have been if my father hadn't gotten sick and died so quickly. I had just started writing the piece when he was diagnosed, and his illness went so fast. The bulk of the piece was written as I was grieving his death, so, of course, a lot of sadness came into the piece—both a warm kind and a more grim kind. I tried to represent the different emotional strata through layers of counterpoint.
It sounds like you were writing music as autobiography or memoir. To mix fresh grief into that process sounds difficult.
My first thought was, How was that any different than any of the other music I write? I think of all of my music as being that. But this is more explicitly that than other pieces. As composers, we're always taking our life experience and putting it into the music we write, even if we're writing for characters. When I wrote Penelope, I was still thinking, "This is how I would feel if I were Odysseus; this is how I would feel if I were Penelope." We're using our sense of empathy in order to imagine how others feel. It's all coming from this emotional core.
Other composers obviously didn't think about it that way. Stravinsky certainly didn't. Nico Muhly has talked about how he doesn't like to think of himself as emotionalizing his music. It's absolutely a valid point that looking at a piece of music as a very explicitly autobiographical statement isn't something we really do. But that's the way I approach writing for the most part.
When did you decide you wanted to have a film be part of the piece?
When Martin [Sher] called me, the initial question was, Do you know any composers with connections to North Carolina? I was like, Wait a minute. Did you not know about my North Carolina history? I started talking about the light, and he said, "Well, if you're interested in doing something, what kind of piece would it be?" Immediately I thought there had to be a film component, because I would want to catch a sense of the light that was such a huge part of my memory of visiting North Carolina.
I knew of this filmmaker Mark DeChiazza who had worked with [composer] Steve [Mackey, her husband]. He is really great at making film that doesn't compete with the music but that runs in a tangential narrative and is more abstract. Salisbury—the town where we shot it, where my grandparents lived and my dad grew up—has these historical associations that my grandparents were really actively involved with. My grandmother was one of the pioneers of the Salisbury historical preservation movement, and they would be thrilled to see it immortalized in celluloid.
What memories does the film depict?
Playing with a toad in a jar or putting pennies on the railroad tracks—my brother and cousin and I used to do this a lot when we visited. Playing near the railroad tracks was strictly verboten, but in those free-range days, it was one of our favorite pastimes. We'd place pennies and sticks on the tracks and come back later to see if they'd been squashed or flung afar by the trains. Some scenes were imagined memories of my father's boyhood—running around the old Cheerwine factory and other parts of downtown Salisbury. And some scenes recalled things that both my father and I experienced as children and as adults—playing at the local parks, views of neighborhood streets while riding in cars, visits to the local cemetery where family was buried, social gatherings with adults who were drinking cocktails and smoking cigarettes. The movie is an attempt to capture something between memory and dreaming.
What was it like having your children in starring roles in the film?
I'd never taken them to Salisbury before, so just bringing them to this place of great personal and historical significance was affecting. I was able to show them the inside of the house where my father grew up, the locus of my most meaningful Salisbury memories. Watching them re-create these scenes was very powerful. It made me think more deeply about the family that has come before me and the family that will come after me—how these generations never meet, but how overwhelming the love between them would be.
Did knowing that there would be film involved impact the music?
I would be writing something, and I would jot down an idea to send to Mark about the film. He was very open and receptive to everything. All the ideas from the film really came from the music. Mark came with something that was really just perfectly in line with what I had hoped it would be.
In a recent interview, you talked about taking inspiration for Unremembered from details in Nathaniel Bellows' drawings of his poems. Both Hiraeth and Unremembered involve the musical flowing into or out of the visual.
Yes, they do. My very first idea for Hiraeth came to mind while I was watching a film, oddly enough. It was Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line—a wordless scene where there was just a beautiful play of light on some water and trees. Something about it triggered a melodic idea in my head. I hadn't actively begun work on the piece yet, but I knew immediately that it would be the seed the piece developed from.
In hindsight, it was no coincidence that this idea was triggered by a visual play of light and shadow, as so many of my childhood memories of North Carolina involve sunlight—the play of light on wax Myrtle trees on my grandparents' patio, the thick light of humid summer mornings when we went down to the tracks, the burnished late-day light filtering through my grandparents' sunroom windows, the soothing sunlight of winter, which looked and felt very different to me from the light up North. When I saw that striking visual in the Malick film, I guess my subconscious spoke up.
Did anything about Hiraeth change after the symphony played Unremembered earlier this year, or was it too late?
Working with them in April did influence me. You would think that it would be late, but Martin gave me a little extension. They have a great horn section, so I was like, "I've gotta write more for horns. And I'm gonna write some sections where it's just all four horns on a melody," which is something I've never done before. Having a visual for the orchestra and their vibe and knowing Grant all definitely played into the writing of the piece. It made it feel more North Carolinian, since it's a piece about North Carolina written for the North Carolina Symphony. It's not just about my childhood. It's filtered through those people who live there now. That's an amazing gift.
A cursory glance at the North Carolina Symphony's 2015–16 season schedule might suggest business as usual. The bills mostly tap the core of the classical canon: Beethoven (five times), Mozart (twice), Rachmaninoff, Saint-Saens, Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi, Brahms, Gershwin and Mahler.
Those performances, however, paint only a partial picture of this season. Underneath the surface, a small revolution seems to be underway. The seeds were planted last year, as General Manager Martin Sher and Music Director Grant Llewellyn began sprinkling in a few pieces by living composers.
This year, those seeds sprout. Of the 14 concerts in the main season, eight include major works by living composers, including three world premieres and four works co-commissioned by the symphony. Sher and Llewellyn have been smart in their programming, too, situating these new works alongside sympathetic older works in order to create exciting dialogue. They treat the new and the old as equals, each with something to say about the other. I hope that approach can become standard operating procedure for both the North Carolina Symphony and American orchestras at large. Some highlights:
SEPTEMBER 24–26: This all-American program includes the world premiere of Sarah Kirkland Snider's Hiraeth. It comes alongside Gershwin's Piano Concerto, which molds the energy of Rhapsody in Blue into a more classical form, and youthful works by Barber and Bernstein, both brimming with exuberance.
OCTOBER 24 & 26: This all-Kahane affair features father Jeffrey performing Ravel's jazz-inspired Piano Concerto in G and then conducting as his son, Gabriel, sings a careful selection of Gerswhin songs and two originals. Those include the world premiere of Hard-Circus Road. Gabriel's Guide to the 48 States is an eclectic 40-minute setting of text from Federal Writers' Program guidebooks.
NOVEMBER 6–7: Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw returns to the area for her second of three performances in a year, this with her violin concerto, Lo. The symphony co-commissioned the work. Expect lots of Shaw's usual deceptive simplicity and ebullient melodies. Beethoven's Eighth Symphony, an ode to a runaway metronome, rounds out the bill.
JANUARY 14–16: Andrew Norman is one of the finest young orchestral minds around. Between Brahms and Beethoven comes his Suspend, a fantasy for piano and orchestra that envisions a Brahms-like figure sitting at the piano, creating little musical doodles that gradually summon an orchestra into existence.
MARCH 4–5: This concert features the final world premiere of the season, resident conductor William Henry Curry's Autumn. It's a celebration of his 20 years with the North Carolina Symphony.
MARCH 17–19: This weekend bill features a dialectic about the sounds of strings. Vivaldi's Four Seasons, one of the most ubiquitous pieces of classical music around, provides the thesis. Nico Muhly's concerto for electric violin, Seeing Is Believing, offers an antithesis with its burbling lines, strange amplified tones and unexpected juxtapositions. Musica Celestis, by Yale composition professor Aaron Jay Kernis, and its lush harmonic palette become a kind of synthesis.
APRIL 28–30: John Adams reassembles fragments of Beethoven, only to have Beethoven rise up and reassert his authority.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Remaking memories"